Miranda placed two cups and saucers onto the kitchen table. The kettle began to whistle, and she carefully lifted the boiling water off the heat. He would be there any minute; she needed to hurry. While she was waiting for the tealeaves to steep, she found the honey and the sugar, and placed them in the center of the table where they would be easy to grab. Miranda heard a horrible cough coming from the top of the stairs as she sat down and closed her eyes, any minute now.
Miranda felt the temperature drop ever so slightly, and she took a deep breath before opening her eyes. A shadowy silhouette appeared in the door, a truly ghoulish figure in black tattered robes, with billowy plumes of black smoke pouring out beneath. Miranda rose to meet her guest as she would a longtime friend.
“Do sit down please.” She motioned to the chair opposite her. “Would you like some biscuits? I forgot to get them out, but I’ve got some.”
“Don’t trouble yourself.” Said the specter, waving a ghostly hand as he sat down.
Miranda returned to her seat and internalized a shiver. She could feel the smoke flumes curl around her ankles. She used all of her concentration to calmly lift her glass, but she only ended up shaking, dripping the hot tea all over her hand. She couldn’t feel it, but she was making a mess. She set her trembling hand back on the table, cup in tow, and lowered her head. The shade across from her raised his glass to what could be called his head and took, what could be called a sip, if he had a mouth to drink with. Miranda couldn’t say. What features he did have were in a constant state of motion, which is why she never looked directly at him for any length of time. The one time she did look him in the eyes, she could have sworn she saw her husband’s eyes looking back at her.
But now, Miranda couldn’t even look in his general direction. She kept her eyes glued to the table as a few tears began to roll down her cheeks. They burned. She didn’t wait for him to talk.
“The cough is back. I don’t know what to do. She keeps getting sick.” She brought her free hand up to her eyes and sniffled. She was hoping the she would be able to control herself better than this. She stilled. She felt something cool and unearthly on the hand she still had plastered to her cup. Miranda looked up enough to see a smokey, shifting, ghostly hand covering hers.
“It’s time.” Was all it said in its ethereal voice. A voice that sounded like all the voices in the world complied into a soothing whisper.
“Please.” Miranda gathered up her strength and managed to bring her eyes up to meet that of the Specter. She didn’t recognize the mash of faces he was sporting now, but she shuddered to imagine her daughter’s being in there. Her hazel eyes flashing for the briefest moment, her dear little nose the next.
“Please,” she tried again. “I can’t lose her too.”
Miranda’s lip trembled as the thought crossed her mind. She could’ve sworn he was patting her hand now, she could feel the cold collection applying gentle pressure.
“We all have our time, my dear. It’s not always fair, but that is life…or death, so to speak.”
“What can I do?” Miranda cleared her throat and attempted to pour him another cup of tea.
“In the end there is nothing any of us can do.”
“I’m not talking about then, I’m talking about now!” She slammed the pot back down on the table before she realized what she’d done. “I’m sorry…I just…I’m sorry.” Miranda leaned back in her chair as she heard the coughing again.
Miranda heard what she guessed was a sigh. “Time is always the thing isn’t it?” He took another sip from his tea, never minding the steaming temperature. “A time is up, and I am required to collect.”
Miranda wiped the tears flowing freely from her eyes and looked at the faces again. “Please.” The word drew out of her mouth as though it carried her last ounce of strength.
“What will you give me?” The shade straightened. “What will you give me for her time.”
Miranda straightened to match. “Some of my own.”
“Are you sure?” He leaned in.
“Yes.” Miranda said as she removed the final tear.
The Specter reached forward and in one graceful movement touched her temple. A small streak of grey hair appeared to match the streaks on the other side and base of her neck.
“A year for a year.”
The specter stood and Miranda followed, showing him the door. Before he left, however, he turned to her and held her hand one last time. “Eventually, one of your times is going to run out, maybe not next year, or the year after that, but one day. What will you do then?”
Miranda looked down at her feet, acknowledging what he said, but not wanting to accept it. “Then you can have me over for tea.” She said as pleasantly as she could and waved him goodbye.
Just as the billowy shadow faded into nothingness, Miranda heard a pattering noise behind her.
“Mummy! Mummy! I’m all better now, see?”
“I do see!” Miranda smiled and picked up her now healthy daughter and balanced her on her hip.
“Mummy, who was just visiting?” Tina squinted her eyes as she looked down the path.
“Just an old friend, my dear.” With that, Miranda turned and walked with her daughter back into the house. It was almost time for dinner.